n Aug. 19, without any prior notice or order from the regional administration, access to the website of the online media outlet The Kashmir Walla (TKW) was blocked in India. On the same day, the same thing happened to the Srinagar-based publication’s Facebook page, which has nearly half a million followers, and to its Twitter (now X) account with more than 50,000 followers.
The next morning, TKW staffers had to vacate their office after being evicted by their landlord. Although its website, Facebook page, and Twitter account are still accessible outside of India, TKW itself has now ceased to be. To many journalists in the valley, Kashmir has lost yet another one of its few independent news outlets.
“The shutdown of TKW was expected because the organization had been witnessing a campaign of harassment since 2019,” said a Srinagar-based journalist wishing anonymity. “Its staffers were arrested, regularly questioned by police, and its office was raided by government officials.”
In a statement, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) demanded that India unblock access to the TKW website and its social media pages. “The Indian government’s arbitrary ban on The Kashmir Walla’s website and social media accounts marks a new low for press freedom in the region,” said Beh Lih Yi, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, in Kuala Lumpur. “If the Indian government aims to be taken seriously as a democracy, it must promptly reinstate TKW’s website and accounts, and put an end to the persecution, harassment, and arrest of journalists in Kashmir.”
TKW was blocked under a relatively new set of Information Technology Rules of India. Under the rules, which came into existence in February 2021, the government has absolute authority to determine what content is left online, modified, or deleted, without judicial oversight.
Shrinking press freedom
Since the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, press freedom in India has declined, with journalists facing arrests and media organizations suffering raids and hostile takeovers.
The 2023 World Press Freedom Index of the global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has India slipping 11 places further from where it was the previous year. The country now ranks 161 out of 180 countries, alongside Tajikistan and Turkey. According to RSF, the media situation in India has gone from “problematic” to “very bad.”
Just this February, journalist Siddique Kappan was finally released after spending more than two years in prison. He had been arrested in October 2020 in Uttar Pradesh while on his way to report the gang rape of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in Hathras. Kappan was indicted under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) – a “draconian law” that enables the state to detain someone without a charge for 180 days.
While other journalists across India are having similar experiences, Kashmiri media stands out as being the worst casualties of state repression, and not only because journalists there have perennially been caught in the crosshairs of both the government and armed rebels.
After gaining independence from the British and splitting into two countries, nuclear archrivals India and Pakistan both claimed parts of Kashmir. Indian-administered Kashmir has been a site of death and destruction since the armed insurgency broke out against Indian rule in the late 1980s. Its media sector has not escaped having casualties. At least 20 journalists have been killed by parties to the conflict over the last three decades, while dozens have been detained and subjected to constant harassment.
Experts say the crackdown on the press in the valley has grown exponentially over the last couple of years. “At present, there is an enormous assault on the press all over India,” Kavita Krishnan, author and Marxist feminist activist, told Asia Democracy Chronicles. “However, in Kashmir, it isn’t enough to call it an assault on the press. What is happening there is that the press critical of the government has been completely shut down and criminalized, with journalists being put in prisons.”
In August 2019, BJP unilaterally stripped the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status and put the region under a clampdown. Kashmir also had a communication blackout for months, which the digital rights body Access Now described as “the longest ever Internet shutdown in any democratic country.” Following this development, the administration in Kashmir intensified its crackdown on journalists by questioning them for their reporting, putting them on a no-fly list, or throwing them in jail.
“Journalism is dead in Kashmir,” said a journalist who did not want to reveal his name. “Those news outlets that have become government mouthpieces are surviving. They are publishing the news that favors the administration.”
This September, the BBC released an investigative report on Kashmir media, which revealed that more than 90 percent of the journalists there had been summoned by the police at least once, although many had gone through the experience multiple times over a story. BBC said that it spent five years in Kashmir “investigating accusations against the Indian government that it is running a sinister and systematic campaign to intimidate and silence the press in the region.”
Among its findings was that journalists have also had fresh passports withheld when they applied to renew expired passports. In recent weeks, BBC said, passports previously issued to some journalists have also been canceled.
Threatening legal action against BBC, an official spokesperson of Kashmir police said, “The organization misreported facts in a case which is sub judice.” In response, a BBC spokesperson told The Wire, a Delhi-based news website, “We would simply say that the BBC stands by its journalism.”
It’s not that hard to find examples that support the BBC report’s assertions. In October last year, Kashmiri photographer Sanna Irshad Mattoo was not allowed to travel overseas to receive her Pulitzer Prize, which she shared with Reuters for her work covering COVID-19’s toll in India.
“The use of the anti-terror law, UAPA, and the draconian PSA against journalists in Kashmir sets the region apart from the rest of India,” said Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of The Wire. “It is also routine for the police in Kashmir to harass journalists for doing stories critical of the administration. This may also happen in one or two cases elsewhere in the country, but has become a regular occupational hazard for Kashmiri reporters and editors.”
There had been several instances of Kashmiri journalists being stopped at the airport and prevented from flying abroad even though they were not wanted in any ongoing criminal matter, Varadarajan said. But now, he said, “we hear that some 70 journalists in Kashmir have had their passports impounded.”
Following the abrogation of Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status, authorities took unprecedented steps to control the press in the valley. Immediately, after the August 2019 development, almost all reportage critical of the Indian state disappeared from local news websites. Publications have since deleted thousands of articles from their archives.
In May 2020, the regional administration’s Department of Information and Public Relations released the New Media Policy, which critics say was an attempt to further control the flow of information from the disputed Himalayan region.
Besides empowering authorities to decide what is “fake,” “unethical,” or “anti-national” content, the 50-page policy, which will remain in effect until 2025, allows government officials to take legal action against journalists and media organizations. Media outlets that violate the new rules will also be delisted and lose government advertisements.
A cornered Kashmiri press
In mid-January 2022, the Kashmir Press Club (KPC), the largest independent media body in the region, was forcibly closed following a raid by armed police. Established in 2018, KPC had 300 registered members.
“Any channel through which facts about the situation were going outside Kashmir has been stifled,” said Krishnan. “The only voice that Kashmiris are allowed to speak is to write or read from the script that the government has written.”
And that is why TKW is already being missed. Established as a blog more than a decade ago, the feisty organization grew into a full-fledged news magazine, where young journalists would do fearless journalism.
In a statement, TKW described its sudden and forced closure as gut-wrenching, “opaque censorship” and “another deadly blow” to press freedom in Jammu and Kashmir.
“Since 2011,” the statement said, “TKW has strived to remain an independent, credible, and courageous voice of the region in the face of unimaginable pressure from the authorities while we watched our being ripped apart, bit by bit.”
For TKW, that pressure had been particularly painful. In February 2022, its editor, Fahad Shah, was detained by police for allegedly publishing anti-national content. The 33-year-old was booked under UAPA and sedition charges. Also the founder of TKW, Shah has contributed to top international media outlets including The Nation, Guardian, Foreign Affairs, Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and Christian Science Monitor.
Shah eventually made bail for the two cases, but was arrested for yet another case. He was awaiting his bail hearing in the third case when he was slapped with a detention order under the Public Security Act (PSA), which allows the authorities to detain a person without trial for up to two years.
Shah, however, is not the only TKW journalist to wind up behind bars. Sajad Gul, who worked with the outlet as a trainee reporter, remains in jail in Uttar Pradesh under PSA for publishing “anti-national” content on his social media. Meanwhile, TKW’s erstwhile interim editor, Yashraj Sharma, is facing legal charges over an article he wrote about the Indian army.
Warned The Wire’s Varadarajan: “What is happening in Kashmir will happen elsewhere in India if this trend toward stifling press freedom is not opposed by the media, civil society, political parties and, above all, the courts.” ◉
Bhat Farhat and Bhat Sakib are independent journalists based in India-administered Kashmir.